Almost a decade before the Hindenburg disaster put people off taking to the skies in airships, there was a great deal of optimism about their potential for transatlantic travel.
Reporting on the third successful Atlantic crossing of the German airship Graf Zeppelin, The Engineer wrote, ‘this voyage is looked upon by all concerned as a most satisfactory one, and it was announced… that the construction of four new zeppelin airships will now be begun, and they will be ready for service in the spring of 1931. Dr Leisler Kiep, who was one of the 19 passengers of the Graf Zeppelin and is managing director of the Hamburg-American Line, has announced that his company will put its whole organisation behind the building of new transatlantic airships, for which he is convinced there is a great future.’ The Engineer also reported how, spurred on by the German success, efforts to develop two British airships, the R100 (designed by a team including Barnes Wallis and Neville Shute) and the R101 were making good progress.
‘On Monday 29 July, a beginning was made with the inflation of R101 with hydrogen gas at the works of the Airship Guarantee Company at Howden Yorkshire. The complete filling of the gasbags will occupy, it is anticipated, about a month.’
‘Later on,’ continued the article, ‘flights by R100 to Canada and R101 to Egypt and India… are contemplated. The airships will carry 100 passengers and have a designed maximum speed of 82 miles per hour.’
R100 made her maiden flight on 16 December 1929, flying from Howden to Cardington in Bedfordshire and in July 1930 completed her first transatlantic flight to Canada.
However, in a harbinger of the disasters to come, the fledgling UK airship industry was silenced a few months later when the R101 crashed over France, killing 48 people. Jon Excell